Christmas at Mission City Coffee

I’m writing a book! Or actually, I’ve compiled and refined some of my favorite HOLIDAILIES posts from the ten years I’ve been participating, and created a book from them. Look for The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the (Holiday) Tub for Kindle and Paperback sometime in the next ten days. Meanwhile, today’s piece was written just for the book (and for Holidailies, of course).


There is a cold rain trying its best to soak us as my mother and I dash from the car to the back door of our favorite café, the Mission City Coffee Roasting Company. It is the week before Christmas and we are having a late lunch while we wrap up the last few loans scheduled to fund before the new year.

Boston, the owner’s son, is working the bar and he waves to us as we step inside. Mom heads off to use the restroom, and I go to order our food – artichoke penne, maybe or the vegetarian lasagna that is so deliciously spicy – and coffee, before I take a seat at my favorite table, the one in the window.

We were among the very first customers when the café had opened, and we remained loyal over the years, getting to know the baristas – the regulars who often hung their art on the brick walls, and the rotating collection of students from nearby Santa Clara University.

Because we both lived and worked in the neighborhood, we got to know a lot of the regular customers, as well, like the frail old man with the bushy white beard and the quiet, solid presence. He was a Quaker, my mother told me, and a deserter from World War II. He was strongly anti-war, and when Women Opposed to War held demonstrations, he would always be there, supporting the cause.

That old man always struck me as possessing both great wisdom and great sadness, but I never really knew him well enough to learn the truth.

It seems fitting that he should be there, spending the rainy December day surrounded by the familiar faces of people he recognizes doesn’t really know.

Imagine the scene: the café in its afternoon lull; most of the staff is finishing the cleanup from the lunch rush. Cold rain outside meeting the warm coffee and pastry-infused air inside has fogged all the windows, and in one corner, a young woman, one of that year’s crop of students, is singing to herself as she wipes down tables.

“You’re really good,” someone tells her. “Sing more?”

She glances to Boston, a combination of fear and delight on her face. He nods permission, and she opens her mouth, singing an a capella version of “O Holy Night” that has all of us moved nearly to tears.

“Sing more,” one of the other customers says, bringing his latte with him to the piano. “I can play for you, if you want.”

There is a murmur of encouragement from all of us. “Oh, yes, please do. Your voice is so lovely.”

He’s in a button-down shirt and khaki pants – the winter version of the Silicon Valley dress code.

She is wearing jeans and a t-shirt under her café-issued apron. She has blue eyes, strawberry-blonde hair in a choppy version of a pixie cut, and the round cheeks of a person who is both a singer, and not yet out of their late teens.

Boston slings his apron over the counter, then rests his elbows on top of it. “Go ahead,” he says. “It’s not busy.”

And so we are treated to an impromptu concert of holiday music, unrehearsed, but somehow perfect in its imperfection.

The piano playing is a bit uneven, but her voice compensates, soaring above the plunked keys in a pure, operatic soprano that fills the room.

Later we learn that she’s a music major, studying to be an opera singer. She sings pop and folk, as well, and she’ll be one of the acts at the next open mic night.
The piano player’s coffee and pastry are comped.

We all leave big tips in the jar, knowing that Boston will ensure that the singer gets the extra.

Mom and I finish lunch, and leave the café, facing the cold rain, and the busy streets, the drivers who can never seem to use turn signals, the clients who haven’t followed instructions, and the lenders who take forever to make decisions.

But somehow nothing seems quite as dire or urgent as it did before.
Somehow, despite the unrelenting rain, we leave the café with bubbles of sunlight in our hearts.

Holidailies 2015

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Christmas at Mission City Coffee by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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